SUNDAY EDITION | ‘Secret’ police? Louisville airport agency cites 2002 ruling to keep officers’ records private
The practice by Kentucky’s largest airport operators runs counter to other police agencies that are bound by state law to make information in personnel files public.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In the summer of 2013, the agency that oversees Louisville International Airport announced it was hiring a new public safety director. James Sohan would be in charge of the airport’s police, firefighters and medical response teams.
A four-paragraph press release listed Sohan’s qualifications – a criminal justice degree from the University of Louisville, more than a decade as a firefighter and 22 years with the Louisville Metro Police Department, where he retired as a major in 2011.
But sometime after November, Sohan left the job. Matt Kolter, one of Sohan’s top deputies, is also no longer with the department.
The circumstances surrounding their departures remain a mystery. Staff and publicly appointed board members of the Louisville Regional Airport Authority refuse to talk about it, other than confirming that the two officers are no longer employed.
And the airport authority also declines to provide records that might explain the exits, such as termination or resignation letters.
Those records would typically be public documents, but Louisville airport officials cite a 2002 Kentucky Attorney General’s opinion that lets them keep secret even the most basic records about the airport police.
Airport operators in northern Kentucky and Lexington also rely on the decision to shield basic personnel information about their police departments.
By contrast, every other law state and local law enforcement agency in Kentucky is bound by state "sunshine" laws to provide information such as officer commendations, complaints, disciplinary actions and investigative records.
While the Louisville airport authority was eager to publicly disclose Sohan’s background and qualifications when it hired him, the agency now attempts to shield all records pertaining to his and other officers’ employment by invoking the 16-year-old attorney general’s opinion.
“It’s very important for the public to understand how their police departments are run and if there are disciplinary actions, if there is wrongdoing within a public agency,” said Michael Abate, a First Amendment attorney based in Louisville. “The airport police are allowed to operate fully in secret, and that's very troubling.”
The airport authorities in Louisville, Lexington and northern Kentucky are among hundreds of so-called special purpose government entities that are overseen by appointed officials and have the power to levy taxes or fees or spend public funds.
The denials from the Louisville airport authority, whose board is appointed by Kentucky’s governor and Louisville’s mayor, came after WDRB News in February began requesting information about an investigation that airport officials have confirmed is ongoing. It is unclear what the probe entails or who it involves.
The Louisville airport’s police department has 41 sworn officers and a budget of $4 million, making it among the largest in Jefferson County, behind only Louisville Metro Police, the Jeffersontown Police Department and the University of Louisville Police Department.
The officers are separate from federal Transportation Security Administration workers that operate security screening lines. Airport police are responsible for criminal investigations, medical emergencies, fires, traffic accidents and patrol in and around the airport, according to the department’s standard operating procedures.
The department’s budget comes from a variety of sources that include airport lease revenue, federal grants and passenger fees.
Yet it is virtually hidden behind federal regulations that were interpreted by former Kentucky Attorney General Ben Chandler’s office. The organizations in charge of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Hebron, Ky., and Blue Grass Airport in Lexington also pointed to Chandler’s 2002 decision in denying officers’ personnel files requested under the state open records law.
Through a spokeswoman, Louisville airport authority board chairman Jim Welch declined to be interviewed, as did Karen Scott, who served as the agency’s interim executive director until new executive director Dan Mann started in March.
Tom Halbleib, an attorney for the airport authority, told WDRB reporters that board members would not be made available to speak.
Approached after the board’s March meeting, Mann said he could not discuss personnel matters.
Board member Pat MacDonald said he was new on the board but “I haven’t heard a word” about the reasons why the two officers left.
Another board member, John Moore, told a reporter, “Why would the board know anything about personnel matters?” and declined to answer other questions as he left the meeting.
But airport staff emailed at least one board member about the officers, according to a response to an open records request. The airport authority withheld the contents of that email as “attorney client privileged communication.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who serves on the airport authority board, said after the March board meeting that he had not been notified about the officers who left, to his knowledge. “That’s the first I’ve heard of that,” he said after a reporter told him the airport’s public safety director had departed.
When asked about the contradiction between touting the arrival of Sohan in a media release and refusing to provide any information about his departure, attorney Halbleib said, “We can approach it that way. … We’re not going to comment.”
Sohan and Kolter could not be reached for comment.
’Alarmed at the breadth’
The Louisville airport authority’s view that its police records are private can be traced to the weeks after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Mark Hebert, then a reporter for television station WHAS-11, filed an open records request under Kentucky law that asked for disciplinary action against airport officers, as well as applications and resumes of officers that had worked at the airport since 1999.
But airport officials denied the request under a part of Kentucky law that allows agencies to withhold documents if prohibited by federal law or regulation. They cited federal rules on airport security that they argued let employee records be kept confidential.
They also refused to turn over incident reports subsequently sought by Hebert, saying those included “sensitive security information” that also can be kept private.
Hebert then appealed to the attorney general’s office, which in early 2002 sided with the airport agency and ruled that federal regulation “mandates nondisclosure of airport police officers’ names, annual salaries, resumes, and applications, along with records reflecting disciplinary actions against the officers.”
The airport authority reiterated that opinion in denying records requested by WDRB in recent months, saying it classifies all law enforcement records as “sensitive security information.”
But former Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver, who wrote the opinion, said she now is “alarmed at the breadth” of the decision and has concerns it is “overbroad.”
“A lot of things were kind of in turmoil in that period and there had obviously just recently been changes to federal laws to tighten up on security,” she said in an interview last week. “Everyone was on hyper alert.”
Bensenhaver, now the director of the Bluegrass Institute’s Center for Open Government, said that while some officers’ personal information should be withheld, the public has a right to know “if there are issues with security at that airport.
“Have you had any disciplinary actions against you? Have you had any complaints filed against you? Those are the kinds of things that traditionally have been no problem with public employees to access,” she said, adding that a letter of resignation or termination would “clearly” be a public record.
Some airports do provide these records.
In Minnesota, for example, the Metropolitan Airports Commission typically releases complaints against an employee and their resolutions, spokesman Patrick Hogan said in an email. The airport agency in 2015 disclosed letters of commendation and appreciation, as well as reprimands, for officers involved in a shooting at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Those personnel data are public under Minnesota law and aren’t considered “sensitive security information,” Hogan said.
Officials with the Columbus Regional Airport Authority in Ohio and the Indianapolis Airport Authority also said they provide portions of officers’ personnel files that are releasable under state laws.
“Many airports across the country have pretty free access to that information, it appears,” Bensenhaver said.
WDRB last week appealed the airport agency’s multiple denials to Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office, asking for a new decision on whether police records are being properly withheld.
“I think probably in 2002, and I say this apologetically, that was an overly broad interpretation of the statute,” Bensenhaver said. “But we'll have to see if the AG takes a second look at it.”
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